The Self-Serving Hustle of “Hillbilly Elegy”


As one of a smallish group of liberal Appalachian ex-pats, I have always considered myself an ambassador for my place of birth. I have tried to respond graciously to less than good-natured jokes about familial relations and general backwardness in the Appalachian region, and highlight the pride I still take in the work ethic and common decency of my family and community.

Lately, every inquiry has been framed around J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy: whether I have read it or whether conditions for “my people” are as dire as described in the book. Vance’s memoir might have eventually faded from relevance, as there is little glamour to be found in the cored and denuded hills of the region. Then desperate Appalachians came in out droves to back Donald Trump’s improbable run to the White House.

While it is debatable what profit the Appalachian will reap from a Trump presidency, Vance has already turned his memoir into a cottage industry, serving as an explainer-in-chief for the nation’s suddenly important underclass. That Vance in no way represents my Appalachian upbringing is less distressing than than the sheer amount of people who, usually without reading the book, automatically assume that he does.

The easiest argument to make against J.D. Vance, and one that I have made to quickly exit conversations about Hillbilly Elegy, is that he was raised primarily in Middletown, Ohio, close to Dayton and therefore not truly one of the hillbillies for whom he is offering an elegy. Though he did unfortunately grow up in an area experiencing economic downturn, it was more the decline of American manufacturing that occurred as the metals industry closed factories and eliminated union jobs to stay competitive in world markets. Rather than offer his perspective on the hillbillies of Appalachia, he should be writing about the displaced and forgotten factory workers of America’s heartland, the issue being that this particular plight is well-trod ground, depicted in Tom Cruise movies and Bruce Springsteen albums.

Actual Appalachians, in the wild

Vance would also have a harder time making a case as a child of the rust belt as he does for being a hillbilly: ARMCO, later rebranded as AK Steel, continued to operate at a high level in Middletown until a union lockout in 2006, sparing Vance and his family the devastation felt in places like Youngstown, Ohio or Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. In order to set himself apart, Vance has to mine his family’s Appalachian heritage.

As a reader, I found Vance’s main thesis in Hillbilly Elegy to be that Appalachians are a shiftless bunch seemingly unprepared to realize the American dream in the way of people in other parts of the country. In the author’s own words:

We spend our way into the poorhouse. We buy giant TVs and iPads. Our children wear nice clothes thanks to high-interest credit cards and payday loans. We purchase homes we don’t need, refinance them for more spending money, and declare bankruptcy, often leaving them full of garbage in our wake. Thrift is inimical to our being. We spend to pretend that we’re upper class. And when the dust clears — when bankruptcy hits or a family member bails us out of our stupidity — there’s nothing left over. Nothing for the kids’ college tuition, no investment to grow our wealth, no rainy-day fund if someone loses her job. We know we shouldn’t spend like this. Sometimes we beat ourselves up over it, but we do it anyway.

Leaving the undercurrent of self-loathing completely alone, Vance presents the spendthrift ways of the hillbilly, combined with violence and substance abuse, as the root problem to be solved. This is a very superficial analysis of what is an observable pattern of behavior in Appalachia, though there are many more stories of families who stretched what little money they had to send a child to college or provide for extended family members.

More real, honest-to-goodness hillbillies

As a child once removed from Appalachian culture, Vance observed men in Ohio who expected to work their entire careers for a company and make a comfortable living. The factory provided reliable, reasonably safe employment that should have, and in many cases did, allow the next generation a pathway out of poverty. Vance’s mother did attend college and became a nurse, something that he glosses over to highlight her shortcomings and his struggle. Vance’s take on Appalachians, particularly his family, may be uncharitable–but choosing not to fully consider the culture which he is critiquing is inexcusable.

The two most prominent industries in the Appalachian region, mining and timber, are high risk and low reward for the worker. The spending habits Vance finds so odious arise from an economy of fluctuation. Many Appalachian workers–but particularly those in the mining and timber industry–found their livelihoods subject to many outside forces. Company bosses were always looking for a way to maximize profits, and often did so by driving down wages or threatening mine shutdowns. Timber in Appalachia had a very short span of productivity for the worker, as most hillsides were clear cut, enriching absent owners and leaving loggers stuck in a mire of their own creation.

Vance does not seriously explore this unbalanced economic system that kept workers poor while enriching out of state companies. It is a short and unfortunate leap from Appalachians living on scrip or in a company house to running up unrealistic credit card bills. The miner or logger often found himself owing to the bosses at the end of the week. Owing to a credit card company is not vastly different. Vance, rather than exploring the issue deeply or empathetically, simply offers his family’s narrative as a touchstone and casts himself as the hero in it.

Writing a memoir in one’s thirties exhibits a healthy amount of hubris, but Vance spares few details about his family’s strife and his unique blend of talent and grit that allows him to rise above it. Though he pays small homage to his grandmother and a few others, Vance makes it clear that his struggle is mainly a singular one:

Mom had begun using again. She’d stolen some family heirlooms from her fifth husband to buy drugs (prescription opiates, I think), and he’d kicked her out of the house in response. They were divorcing and she had nowhere to go.

I’d sworn to myself that I’d never help Mom again, but the person who made that oath to himself had changed. I was exploring, however uneasily, the Christian faith that I had discarded years earlier. I had learned, for the first time, the extent of Mom’s childhood emotional wounds. And I realized those wounds would not heal, even for me.

This passage is lad literature worthy of James Frey or Augusten Burroughs, openly confessional  and concerned primarily with the deep feelings and struggle of the protagonist. It is my personal belief that an Appalachian would not air out family business in public at all, much less to curry favor with outsiders to the culture. In any case, it is unfair for Vance to make assumptions about the whole of Appalachia based on his life and family. I know much more about Vance’s family than I care to, and it is enough to say that they are hardly archetypal of the region.

Yes, also not Vance’s people

And Vance, as he portrays himself in the book, tries for soulful perseverance but comes up with smug saintliness. As a human being who has lived forty-one years, I refuse on principle to believe any memoir where the protagonist comes off looking as good as J.D. Vance.

And this is the only real question to pose about Hillbilly Elegy: What would possess a bright and concerned Appalachian to write a hit piece on his own people? His connection with Peter Thiel’s Mithril Capital could give rise to all sorts of hypotheses, the most probable being an eventual run for the US Senate in Ohio. Vance has most recently garnered publicity for launching a non-profit to help in Middletown, though details are scant. Vance might actually believe that Hillbilly Elegy and this new venture can help people, and hopefully it does. What J.D. Vance needs to realize is that to help someone, a person should listen and embrace, rather than merely sit back in judgement.

R. Mike Burr is a native West Virginian and public school teacher who resides happily with his wife, two children, and two dogs in Atlanta. His work has appeared previously in Prefix magazine and other publications.

93 thoughts

  1. Hillbilly Elegy is nowhere near truth. I was raised dead solid center of the coalfields of WV. A key point he leaves out is that he was not raised there. Another key point is that the people I know neither look nor act in the manner he describes. Mr. Vance would do well to go buy himself a can of oil and call himself an oil baron. Pretender.

  2. Am in yhe midst of reading and quickly lising interest. Sounds too republican for this Boone County WV girl.

  3. Wonderful article. I am going to print out and give to the next person who wants to talk about Hillbilly Elegy. I guess Vance thought White Working Class Elegy didn’t sound sensational enough.

  4. I love this story because the moment I saw the book hit stores I thought, What educated true Appalachian person uses the word “hillbilly.” While there are plenty of good country folk who don’t hesitate to call themselves hillbillies, no one but NO ONE who aspires to write and inform from the area ever uses that word. When I found out hVance was from Ohio–and not even the Appalachain part–it all became clear to me. I share this writer’s view on the book and the author, and I am glad someone finally said it.

    1. I happen to be from WV as well… and felt the same instant knot in my stomach when hearing Mr. Vance being feted by the conservative media and liberal elites alike. People don’t do this to their own people. Except in this case we are not his people at all, which explains a lot.

    2. I was thinking the same thing, I was born in southern WVVA.,raised in Baltimore, moved back here, and thought of and spoke of “hillbillies”. I read more about Appalachia, read more about my heritage, found a smart, educated girlfriend who was and is Proud to be Appalican, who got really upset when I used that word I learned in Baltimore, hillbilly. I don’t refer to myself or any other appalaican as that any more .

    3. This article is wonderful, but the comments suck. Just STOP with the, “how degrading is the hillbilly term!!” Some Appalachians are offended by the word hillbilly and some of us are NOT. I’ve got a degree, but this hasn’t a thing to do with being “uneducated”. Millions of people call themselves Appalachian. How we each determine what that means, is our own personal business. I’m so tired of hearing this drivel about this term. Drives me up a wall.

      My family STILL LIVES here, has for 11 generations, right smack dab in the middle of Appalachia, and we still call ourselves hillbillies. As in, “I’m a hillbilly and will kick your a$$!” We are not ashamed of the term, we use it among ourselves. This attempt to gentrify Appalachia, or clean it up? I’m not sure exactly what people are trying to do when they put people down for using this term. Especially Appalachians to other Appalachians!! Many of us are not ashamed of that term. It is an identity. We are not ashamed of our identity or our area. Those that are, that’s their problem.

      I hear it all the time, trying to change certain images or terms of Appalachia to make it, God knows what. Too many instances to name. An Appalachian artist was once told about her painting, which was a memory of her grandparents place, that she should not have painted the outhouse in the picture! Because it looks bad on Appalachian culture. REALLY?

      True Appalachians are not ashamed of outhouses. Because what knowledge we have and we understand is, it’s not necessarily poverty but geography that can determine bad plumbing in Appalachia. We know the truth! Many homes and businesses TODAY, have pump and haul systems that are just modern day outhouses, in Appalachia. But I guess if you don’t see it, our image is cleaned up for you!

      The millions of us that are Appalachian, we will determine whether hillbilly is a derogatory term ourselves, and whether an outhouse belongs in our own paintings.
      You can call this gal a Hill Billy anytime! I’m very proud to be one.

  5. Thank you for writing this. “What would possess a bright and concerned Appalachian to write a hit piece on his own people?” — partly, his “Tiger Mom” professor, Amy Chua, at Yale, he said in an interview with WaPo. Maybe she even hooked him up with agents or Harper Collins. Acquire those power imprimaturs and you’re on your way to having the NY bookish and pundit class anoint you as the voice of Appalachia, or is it the Rust Belt? Wait, it’s neither. As you, Mr. Burr, smartly point out. But the political and cultural analysts are absolutely desperate to understand Wha’ happened? with the election, and Elegy gives them an answer — as valid as all their other insular and, as it turns out, wildly erroneous explanations.

  6. I just finished reading it. My people are East Tennessee, Hawkins County. I lived in the area off and on until my father died (Vietnam). Then we moved off for good, although, like Vance, I have continued to go back. I wrote my own memoir about my father’s death and its impact on the family (After the Flag has been Folded) and a set of novels set in East Tennessee (Mother of Rain, Burdy, Christian Bend). However, I don’t feel at all like I could be the megaphone for Appalachian people. I try to tell the stories I know. I avoided Vance during the election, and have approached Vance’s book cautiously. I think your analysis is spot on. I’d add a couple of observations. What rang the truest for me had nothing to do with Appalachia and had everything to do with family – Vance was saved in a large part because of his grandparents. I had such a relationship with my own granny, so all that resonated with me. The beauty of the story is a grandparents love for a grandchild. And it is true of all people no matter what region of the country they are from – we all need a cheerleader. The book’s true value lies in the testimony of that relationship. The other observations – Vance worked PR for the military. If you’re going to have a safe job in a war zone, that’s the job to have. I think much credence is allotted Vance because of 1) his Marine service 2) his PR/marketing skills 3) His Ivy League degree 4) Well-groomed White Guy. And I think you are spot on – he always paints himself in the memoir as good guy in a white hat. He really deflects any drama around what had to have been drama, except for the one scene where he runs from his momma and even in that, he’s the victim again. There is a lot of Vance the victim in this book. That’s hardly mentioned at all in his innumerable TV appearances. Thank you for this.

  7. I grew up in Breathitt County, the place from which Vance says his forebears came. A friend recommended the book, so I looked it up on Amazon and read the sample. In the first chapter, Vance talks about Jackson having 6,000 people and a sizable number in public housing.
    Jackson’s population has never been close to 6,000, not even in its heyday in the 1920s as a railroad town. During my lifetime, the population has hovered around 2,400, maybe a little more in the coal-boom period from ’73 to ’84, but never reaching 3,000. And there may have been a few people in public housing in South Jackson, but no large number.
    It’s true things have become desperate in Breathitt County, primarily, in my view because of Oxy and meth. But Vance’s claim to know Appalachians through his experience with his family members in Southwestern Ohio seems to me to be presumptuous.
    And I’ll say this: If the poor research displayed in that sample exemplifies his work as a lawyer, I’d look for a different firm.

    1. It sounds odd to me to see you write that things are desperate because of drugs — I’ve always thought it was the other way around — that people turn to drugs because they are hopeless and despairing. The funneling of money to the top 1% in this country has left many many people desperate for a way to support themselves and their families. And left a younger generation with nothing to look forward to. Yet, people keep voting in the politicians who want to make it worse instead of better.

  8. “It is my personal belief that an Appalachian would not air out family business in public at all, much less to curry favor with outsiders to the culture.” My own experience growing up here certainly supports your belief; family business was private, period. My relatives didn’t even want positive publicity. As most of us well know, there is no one Appalachian archetype. We come in all stripes and colors and values.

    1. Betty, you are right about not airing personal business. My mother’s family is from Appalachia and they were a very private, don’t make your business public, culture. I have wonderful memories of my hillbilly family and I enjoy returning every time I get the opportunity. Vance’s book has generated a lot of discussion, which is always a good thing.

  9. I think this review is a bit harsh. I really enjoyed Hillbilly Elegy. I am a descendant of hillbillies, or perhaps rednecks would be a more accurate term. My hillbilly experience is not the same as J.D. Vance’s but I can certainly relate. I grew up in the mountains of North Carolina where my family has been for several hundred years. We still have the land, from a land grant from the Cherokee. My hillbilly ancestors were educated. They were the teachers, the preachers, the lawyers and the doctors in the county. They left to go to the military and to go to college but they always came back and worked in the community. My generation was the first to really leave and make a life elsewhere and I do not think we will go back. I’m nearing retirement age and prefer a gentler climate. Growing up in that region in the 1960’s I noticed the difference between my family and the some of the kids I went to school with who didn’t have shoes or electricity or running water. The school buses went up into the hollers and dragged them to school whether they wanted to go or not. And I think it worked. For those who didn’t leave the area after high school, and there weren’t that many, most have done ok. And yes, even after more than 40 years we stay in touch due partly to the magic of Facebook. The addiction connection undoubtedly touched Mr. Vance’s life in a terrible way from his alcoholic grandfather to his addict mother. The nightmare of living with and loving people afflicted with this ugly disease is devastating and life altering and certainly not confined to the hillbilly population. The opioid addiction problem has some roots in the rust belt since the first pill mills reportedly started in that area. I believe I read that J.D. Vance is starting a foundation to help people affected by the opioid addiction epidemic. Unless you’ve lived it you cannot understand it. For a child being raised in the disease the repercussions last a lifetime.

    So please, don’t judge. Enjoy the book for what it is–one guy’s experience. Apparently millions of us have. It’s a runaway best seller.

    1. I totally agree with your assessment of this book. It’s a memoir, and he is writing his story from his perspective. I don’t think he is trying to provide us a sociological examination of Appalachian culture. Though I am older than Vance, I found that much of his experience rang true of my own.

    2. Ellen,
      I am glad you enjoyed Vance’s book…it appears that there are many people who did.
      Interestingly enough I grew up in the coalfields of Appalachia where my ancestral roots run deep and for the last 20 years have lived in the mountains of western North Carolina…the area of your upbringing. Although tagged with the Appalachian label, the two areas are very different. The best thing that ever happened to western North Carolina is the fact it was not graced with rich coal and gas deposits to go along with all the natural beauty.

      Mr. Vance’s family could have come from any rural, suburban or urban community in this country and actually, his was a blue collar middle class family in a suburban Midwest area. His grandparents migrated from Breathitt County, Kentucky when they were teenagers. His mother was born in Ohio and so was he. He does NOT represent Appalachia, especially Central Appalachia and its culture in any way, shape or form. He is another exploiter in a long line of exploiters of my people, my geographic region and my culture. His given legal birth name is not Vance. He chose Vance because for him it supposedly has some kind of genealogical connection to Jim Vance who was Devil Ance Hatfield’s uncle and a key player in the larger than life and well blown out of proportion Hatfield – McCoy feud. He exploited his very weak connection to a region that is for some reason ground zero to fly by night journalists, videographers, documentary makers, politicians etc to for every thing that is horribly wrong in America. Real Central Appalachians with a real connection to the Feud don’t have to write a book and brag about that connection.

      The first part of his book was a cathartic personal exercise in facing his family’s strengths and shortcomings and how those impacted him and his choices. I could empathize with his situation even though the experience was not mine. The second part was a hodgepodge of data used to prove his point about change in this country and to voice his very limited conservative view.

      Yes, there are chaotic families in Appalachia. No, they are not the norm. Yes, there are economic woes, unemployment, educational and other social issues in Appalachia. No, those issues are not exclusive to Appalachia.

      The next time you see a book on Appalachia written by a non Appalachian or one proclaiming a weak connection to the region… it like fiction.

    3. It may be an enjoyable read, but the dude is packaging it as a blanket statement for the whole region, AND using it as a base to build…well, something. A political campaign? A movement? So yeah, Burr’s analysis is quite welcome.

  10. I have read a heck of a lot of books and literature about Appalachia, beginning with Harry Caudill’s “Night Comes to the Cumberlands,” shortly after it was published in 1964. I wrote a thousand-page PhD. thesis in sociology about the United Mine Workers and its reform movements back between the 1960s and 1974. In 1981, I began working for newspapers and wrote widely on the Appalachian coalfields and politics.

    R. Mike Burr’s analysis of this book is brilliant — full of powerful critiques of Vance’s incredibly negative portrayal of Appalachian people. Vance repeatedly seems to imply his own disturbing lifetime experiences capture the typical experiences of most people who live in Appalachia even though, as Burr points out, Vance basically grew up in Ohio.

    I have traveled very widely throughout the region, both while researching my dissertation and working as a newspaper reporter. And I met a whole heck of a lot of people in West Virginia, western Pennsylvania, East Kentucky, southwestern Virginia and other nearby areas.

    I think Vance’s book is one of the worst two books about Appalachia I have ever read. The other one is Russell Sobel’s “Unleashing Capitalism: Why Prosperity Stops at the West Virginia Border and How to Fix It.” One chapter in Sobel’s book, for example, “proves” that coal mine safety got worse when federal and state governments strengthened mine safety laws. (There are no statistics to back up that absurd idea.)

    Vance focuses completely on himself. His book offers no statistical evidence about the negative qualities he assigns to Appalachian people. Vance also makes no effort to look at personal problems faced by all kinds of other people across our country and world.

    Thank you Mike Burr for your article,

    Paul J. Nyden
    Charleston, West Virginia

  11. While Mr. Nyden and Mr. Burr’s critiques have merit, they are both speaking of a different time than JD Vance speaks of. I grew up in south central WV 10 years before Vance. There weren’t issues with miners owing the company, or use of scrip at that time. Those issues were real ONCE, but not in the 70s (when I grew up there) or the 80s (when Vance is describing). The spending issues were real. My Dad worked in the coal mines. When times were good, we had a new vehicle every two years, lots of toys, etc. But there were families much worse than us. 4 wheelers, guns, campers, trucks. Luxuries that consumed all funds available, with people conveniently forgetting (over and over again) that the good times would come to an end.

    Secondly, does he violate the typical code of keeping family problems secret? Yep, he sure did. How much good has that code produced? That is a major part of his thesis. Appalachians have ways of dealing with their lives, and the difficulties they face. Those ways just aren’t always particularly good. Maybe we should abandon them and try some different approaches.

    1. How so? Better written? More data? I am somewhat interested in this topic. I am at a loss to understand the critique (other than betrayal of family secrets) leveled at Elegy. It is readable and makes a a few decent points. His timing was good also.

      1. To learn about J.D.Vance, read Hillbilly Elegy. To learn about Appalachia and its people, read Deer Hunting with Jesus. Unfortunately, Joe Bageant died soon after writing DHWJ or he would have been a wonderfully informative guest on shows parsing last fall’s election.

  12. I grew up in a hollow in southern WV., the middle of southern Appalachian country, as the oldest of 5 siblings. Starting out in a one room school, no indoor plumbing at home, and a coal miner father. It was the best of times! We had no wants. There is nothing in Vance’s book, and I read it from cover to cover, that relates to my Appalachian childhood. It’s as if all was either a night mare or fiction.

  13. Why would someone write an “origins story” memoir? Usually seen as a first step in launching either a political or a religious career. Or a con artist (although many would argue all three of those things are really the same thing). Perhaps the narrator is actually tipping off the wary reader as to what is really going on. As you noted in your observation, “As a reader, I found Vance’s main thesis in Hillbilly Elegy to be that Appalachians are a shiftless bunch…”

    I was intrigued about how a person from Ohio was writing about Appalachia and hillbilllies. I’m pretty much not buying it.

    Having grown up in East Tennessee, the descriptions read like those of someone who has never actually experienced Appalachia for good or ill.

    An excellent article.

  14. I just finished reading Hillbilly Elegy and I’m wondering what book most of the rest of you read. I read an autobiography, which drew some conclusions based on personal experience, detailed focus on his own family, a lot of time spent visiting the region of his family’s roots, and his observations of how his family functioned in a new location which was peopled by many others who had moved from his family’s Kentucky home. I’ve never lived in those States — the closest I got was Amelia. island, Fla, and that had troubles of its own. But for all the commenters here, take note: he’s not writing your biographies — only his. He has made a pretty extraordinary journey from being an academic loser to earning one of the most prestigious university degrees around and landing on his feet, and packing a lot of profound evolution into his 30 years. He contemplates this as it happened from within his own background, both as part of a society and a family. He observed the ways in which his family was like others, and the ways in which it was radically unique. I think he’s allowed to do that. And if he is factual about the numbers of Kentuckians around him in Ohio, and the degree of his contacts with his Kentucky roots, I see no reason why he is supposed to refrain from making some generalizations about their personalities. Want to hear a different story? Write your own. I imagine that anyone who examines the events of his own life in this much detail, and notes the social context around himself as carefully, might discover himself emerging from the experience with one or two generalizations in tow. That, I think, is the purpose of most biographies.

    1. I agree with CS Brown. We each have a story. Apparently, a publisher thought Vance’s story worthy to be shared. I was born in Dalton, GA, which is located in the southern most part of Appalachia. Many of my family moved to the north after WWII looking for work, only to return to their roots or move to more economically prosperous cities. I’ve always had a soft spot for the peoples of Appalachia. Like Vance, I return from time to time. I found Hillbilly Elegy interesting, glad I read it.

    2. CS Brown is right on. Another point overlooked by commenters here is the effect of a new environment on an old, isolated culture. Spent much of my youth in an Appalachian coal county and my schooling was in an industrial city larger than Middletown. There may be greater differences among parts of Appalachia than Vance suggests, but I identified with much of what he wrote. I’m too old to have seen the drug culture but am quite familiar with the culture of alcohol abuse and what that can lead to. I believe Vance’s conclusions come from thoughtful analysis and self-examination, not crude judgements. Vance shows much compassion for his people and moved back to Ohio to help them as best he can. Those who view Vance cynically might show a little more humanity and get beyond themselves.

    3. I would agree if it were just a memoir, but he goes on to stereotype all Appalachian people (my people) and use that stereotype to pose political thoeries. I believe that the people who love this book are those who know nothing about Appalachia or it’s culture. None of my family, even those who grew up in Jackson, were impressed with his book.

  15. Some good discussion points on the book are raised here. I grew up in WV, not far from Vance, and am very familiar with the setting and the people. I could identify with much of his story in both a general and personal level. Sure, it’s not a perfect representation of “hillbilly” culture, but for the tristate region of WV-KY-OH, I think Vance gets a painful amount right. Keep in mind, it’s personal reflections of a young man and when taken as such, I’m willing to extend grace to another person willing to share their story and wrestle with some gritty truths of growing up in this region.

    Thanks for the discussion.

    Peace, friends.

  16. Its a quick read and a personal story. . Vance tells us what happens to kids with and without family stability. Not unique to Appalachia, the value of having someone to anchor you, have expectations and love are key to survival and success. The societal perspective of upward mobility can be applied to other eras, nationalities and industries. Its an adjustment, one that some make fairly well, others not so much. The lasting effect of witnessing family violence, revolving boyfriends (his moms) , poverty etc is something he still deals with and always will. We are a sum of our experiences- so is JD Vance.

  17. I haven’t read this book but I was born and raised in Nicholas County Wv. I had five brothers and two sisters. I only remember being happy and still miss those good times. Holidays, even without much money were always so much fun. If we had head times, only our parents knew it.

  18. Vance grew up in Ohio. Ohioians are Buckeyes. Not Hillbillies. Had he grown up in Eastern Kentucky he would have extended grace and love throughout his best seller. He is now a part of the elite group that puts the poor and underprivilaged people of Eastern Kentucky in a bad light to gain fame and fortune. SHAME ON HIM.

    1. Ohio has 32 counties the Feds designate as Appalachian counties. Folks in northeastern Ohio and the Midwestern part of the state believe most of those “hillbilly” counties ought to be part of West Virginia or Kentucky. My relatives in Akron, back in the day when that city made more tires than anyplace in the country, used to note how empty the city became on weekends because so many of the tire workers would go back to West Virginia on weekends. Presumably they took their kids with them. You can grow up in one place but still be infused with cultural values of another.

    2. I agree wth Derry, if you’re raised in a military family that ends up stationed overseas, it doesn’t mean you’re no longer American. Culture as well as generational history doesn’t evaporate because we change addresses, or countries. My family history and ethnic background is woven into who I am.

  19. Mike Burr is guilty of the one thing he accused the author of, Burr needs to listen and embrace. Burr is another example of a person who finds fault with those who disagree with his viewpoint.

    1. Thanks, Betsy! I’m a native Mountaineer and honorary Tar Heel who struggles with the complexity of the Appalachian experience. We are honored to be able to publish Mike Burr’s piece and stir this discussion.

  20. As a liberal myself, I agree with Burr. I read the book expecting more empathy from the author. He also under-acknowledge the role a lack of education had in his family’s decision. I was surprised to learn that he has grown to be a conservative. At 31 yrs. old and writing a memoir, I can’t help to wonder if he has political ambitions.

  21. Hi very much appreciate Mike Barr’s thoughtful and well-targeted criticisms of a very misleading book. Here is a short review I posted on David Ruccio’s economics blog.
    Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J. D. Vance
    Reviewed by Dwight B. Billings

    J.D. Vance is a thirty-one year old graduate of Yale Law School and a principal in a Silicon Valley investment firm. He is also a political conservative and a self-described “hillbilly.” Vance was haphazardly raised by an unstable and abusive, drug and alcohol-addicted single-mother in Middletown, Ohio, a Rust Belt town “hemorrhaging jobs and hope.” His childhood was full of emotional trauma and economic insecurity. Vance says he wrote Hillbilly Elegy to explain how he overcame the obstacles of his childhood and the surrounding despair of his community. He attributes his success to his severe but loving hillbilly grandparents who preached the value of hard work and the American Dream of upward mobility as well as to an empowering stint in the Marine Corps. His other purpose for writing in these troubled economic times is to deliver a jeremiad to the white working class, especially those of Scots-Irish descent with ties to Appalachia. Here he speaks like the stern but loving father-figure he never had. It is one thing to write a personal memoir but quite something else—something exceedingly audacious—to presume to write the “memoir” of a culture.
    Vance notes that “Noble-winning economists worry about the decline of the industrial Midwest and the hollowing out of the economic core of working whites” but more important, he contends, is “what goes on in the lives of real people when the economy goes south.” There is nothing wrong with that question, of course, but his answer points in the wrong direction. The real problem, he says, is about people “reacting to bad circumstances in the worst possible way. It’s about a culture that increasingly encourages social decay instead of counteracting it.”
    It’s often said that you can’t judge a book by its cover but in this case you can. All you really need to know about Hillbilly Elegy can be learned from who has endorsed it on the back cover: Reihan Salam, Peter Thiel, and Amy Chua. Salam is the rightwing editor of the National Review. Thiel is the libertarian venture capitalist, hedge fund manager, and co-founder of PayPal who recently endorsed Donald Trump at the Republican National Convention. Amy Chua, Vance’s mentor in law school, is the author of a controversial, best-selling book advocating harsh childrearing practices, The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. With her husband Jeb Rubenfeld, Chua also wrote The Triple Package which purports to explain why some ethnic/cultural groups are more successful than others because of a sense of superiority, impulse control, and motivating levels of insecurity. Having backers like these—and conservative columnist David Brooks who recently proclaimed in the New York Times that Hillbilly Elegy “is essential reading for this moment in history”—helps to explain the extraordinary but undeserved attention Vance’s book is getting.* Since Vance’s hillbilly losers are portrayed as the opposite of Chua and Rubenfeld’s winners, his endorsements also help to explain Vance’s bottom line: “Public policy can help, but there is no government that can fix these problems for us. . . These problems [drug addiction, teen pregnancy and illegitimacy, the lack of a work ethic, the inability to face the truth about one’s self, etc.] were not created by governments or corporations or anyone else. We created them, and only we can fix them.” Vance’s fix, the usual neoliberal fix, is fix thyself. There is, of course, nothing new here. Hillbilly Elegy is the pejorative Moynihan report on the black family in white face. But its compelling and at times heart-rending memoiristic style, appearing when there is considerable interest in the anger and alienation of the white working class and its presumed support for Donald Trump, is likely fueling much of the book’s popular success. **
    A nostalgic image of an Appalachian barn on the side of a dirt road is on the book’s front cover. But Vance knows little about contemporary Appalachia—certainly not the region’s vibrant grassroots struggles to build a post-coal economy. He has only visited family members in eastern Kentucky or attended funerals there. His inventory of pathological Appalachian traits—violence, fatalism, learned helplessness, poverty as a “family tradition”—reads like a catalog of stereotypes Appalachian scholars have worked so long to dispel. (See works by Henry Shapiro and Anthony Harkins for the origins of these persistent stereotypes and how they have been deployed for more than a century.) Vance’s Appalachia is refracted thru the distorted lens of his own dysfunctional family experience. It makes as much sense as generalizing about Italian Americans from Tony Soprano.
    The real focus of Hillbilly Elegy, however, is not Appalachia but the experience of Appalachian out-migrants. This topic has been expertly documented by serious scholars such as Chad Berry, Phillip Obermiller, and Harry Schwarzweller, James Brown, and Garth Mangalam among others, but their research does not inform Hillbilly Elegy. Vance claims his authority to speak to and about this regional group on the basis of being a Scots-Irish descendant of Appalachia whose maternal grandparents migrated from the Kentucky Mountains to the Midwest for industrial work. They were rough, foul-mouthed, and violent. Vance describes his beloved grandmother—his “Mamaw”—as a “pistol-packing lunatic” who “came from a family that would shoot at your rather than argue with you” (p. 25). He claims that one of his Vance ancestors set off the Hatfield and McCoy feud and he seems to relish telling how his Mamaw once tried to kill his grandfather by setting him on fire with gasoline after he had passed out drunk. Nonetheless, his grandfather made a good living as a steelworker and he and his wife provided the “love and stability” Vance’s mother could never offer. Vance believes that their demands for hard work, discipline, and a love of America as the greatest country on earth enabled him to become, in my words, a little engine that could.
    I tell my students in Appalachian studies courses to beware of two intellectual tendencies in writings about any group—essentialism (“this is the essence of what they are like”) and universalism (“everyone in the group is like this”). Vance heaps on both. I also warn them not to ontologize their neuroses. I picked up this advice from Arthur Mizman’s psychoanalytical study of Max Weber which contended that Weber was guilty of trying to reconcile his childhood angst about the irreconcilable conflict between his pietistic mother and businessman father by writing The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Not to ontologize one’s personal and family neuroses by projecting them onto a culture or a regional group is good advice unless one is as brilliant a cultural analyst as Max Weber. J. D. Vance is no Max Weber.
    * On August 7, 2016, Hillbilly Elegy ranked number nine on the New York Times list of hardcover, nonfiction best-selling books.
    ** For why Vance says he both loves and is terrified by Donald Trump, see Rod Dreher’s interview with him, “Trump: Tribune of Poor White People,” at

    1. Thanks, Dwight! The response to this piece (and Hillbilly Elegy) has been heartening for this aggrieved West Virginian…

    2. Thanks, Dwight. After hearing from many of my friends that this was the book that explained Trump voters, I overcame my skepticism and read it. I kept waiting for the brilliant analysis but all I got was a gripping story about Vance’s childhood and family with a bunch of generalization and projection onto an entire region. I agree that the back cover blurbs give away the game.

  22. Reblogged this on The Thoughtful Coal Miner and commented:
    I’ve had multiple people ask my thoughts about Hillbilly Elegy. Between this article by R. Mike Burr and another by Ivy Brashear titled “Why Media Must Stop Misrepresenting Appalachia” there is really not much for me to add.

    Hillbilly Elegy and it’s author have garnered too much publicity for their “insight” into Appalachian issues. As Burr so perfectly puts it, “Vance does not seriously explore this unbalanced economic system that kept workers poor while enriching out of state companies.” More so, the works and authors who do seldom get the level of media attention to expose the true root of problems in Appalachia and the fault of this nation who reaped the benefits from our suffering.

  23. Just a quick response to those who have suggested that Hillbilly Elegy is ‘simple autobiography, so why are you reading into it more than that’?

    Its title suggests a funeral remembrance for a whole people who didn’t pull their boostraps hard enough, in his estimation. The pages bear that out. Leaving aside any personal oversharing based on Appalachian values or traditions, Vance used his life as a springboard anecdote for a much broader cultural indictment.

  24. Forist of all it is Middletown, not middleburg (not a place) Ohio. Second Middletown AKA Middletucky, is full of A0palachians and is actually a part of appalachia ecologically. I grew up near Middletown, my mother was a social worker among the people and while the book may have gotten some things wrong, it did not get everything wrong considering most Appalachians left Appalachia 75 years ago for factory jobs in places like Middletown, Detroit and elsewhere. And what he writes about are what the local folks call the hillbillies that live in SW Ohio.

  25. The piece with Megan Kelley stated he was now a venture capitalist. I think it is probably more accurate to say he works for or with a venture
    Capitalist. Where would he have gotten his own money to BE a venture capitalist?

  26. I know a proud born and bred West Virginian. I am (liberal now and I was then too based on writings I found while in high school)
    But now I’m a San Franciscan liberal confused by how Trump fooled my bright, suspicious of strangers (ever so slightly) WV friends. And ow Justice has changed from democratic to republican. Confounded.

    I see those who hear commercials about class action suits (and they have a tremendous amount more there) and think they deserve a piece of that pie (even if they never used an IUD or feelsorrybthey didn’t work around asbestos and get mesothelioma. And it is because they want their family to thrive. But they don’t always have the tools or knowledge to make it so.

    Save. Invest. Don’t buy the new truck or video games unless you gave those funds in “disposable income” after main bills are paid.

    My grandfather was a miner. My
    Mom grew up In a company town. But they pinched evety Penny. My dad had two jobs. After raising us mom was a school cook. Their first. Refit card was when they bought an investment and vacation property in Florida to keep the expenses separate for taxes.

    Dad recently died at 88. Mom died 6 years earlier. Together they leftbsn estate if almost $400,000. I told my daddy he should be so proud if his achievements. Raising a very happy family. Filling us with joy and laughter and love. And being financially successful while doing so.

    We split his money the way he dictated in his trust. No name calling. No arguments. No jealousy. He knew we would.

    I’m proud to be from West Virginia (Hurricane) but am confused by these good people thinking Trump would do anything positive for them or their lives.

  27. The hardest thing about being an “upwardly mobile, educated” Appalachian is enduring those who promote or swallow whole-heartedly the tired stereotypes. Those (mostly outsiders) who do perpetuate the stereotypes, actually have the mentality of a bigot. Plain and simple.

  28. Hillbilly. Shmillbilly. I was done reading that book when I read that the answer to poverty WASN’T ” . . . some government program or handout . . . the Republican answer to just about everything. When people have had the economic rug pulled out from under them, well, then, let’s pull up the floor, too.

    1. While the title of J.D. Vance’s book is called “Hillbilly Elegy”, it is actually really about a subgroup of Appalachians who arrived in mainly in OH, MI, and IN as adults or children mostly from a few counties in south-central Kentucky where their forebears had lived for several generations. These folks should more correctly be denoted as “Briars” or “Briarhoppers” rather “Hillbillies”. Hence, the book’s title would be more appropriately is “Briar Elegy”, but that is probably too esoteric of name for the mass market.

      I was born in Dayton OH and lived my entire childhood and early adulthood within less than 10 miles from downtown Middletown, where my Dad was employed for about 20 years. My father came from and went back to Owsley County KY with his parents as my grandfather got and lost various jobs in OH. When they were living in Hamilton OH, my grandfather was shot and killed in 1927 by a neighbor following a dispute over my grandmother when my Dad was 10 years old. After this shooting the family remained in general area with my Grandmother marrying again with a couple of years bearing more children. My Dad dropped out of high school, hoboed during the early 1930s and never graduated, but he worked first menial and then more skilled blue-collar (eventually union) jobs until he retired at age 62. He and my Mom married young and had four sons. I am the oldest and graduated from college eventually earning M.S. and Ph.D. degrees and have had a good and productive professional career. None of my younger brothers graduated from college with bachelor degrees although all have held jobs throughout their working lives.

      With my personal background, I personally identified with many of the people described by J.D. Vance even though a generation and a half separates us. Mr. Burr’s comments are generally too harsh with generalizations that are not contained in the book. Yes, there are issues and Vance has made his own extrapolations and generalization about his KY immigrant family to describe broader categories of “hillbillies”. For the past 10 years, my wife and I have lived in Franklin OH, which is just a few miles upstream of the Great Miami River that flows through Middletown. In fact, the city boundaries sometimes touch. I have found many individuals with the same kind of behavior and lifestyles that I saw over 50 years and described my Mr. Vance in his book. Except, now nearly all of the blue-collar semiskilled jobs are gone and welfare and underemployment is prevalent.

      Thought that you should see descriptions for the following names: Hillbilly, Briar (Briarhopper), & Redneck. These will help you distinguish between these different groups of folks. I’m enclosing the following definitions that I collected from various last summer.

      Briar: (noun) “A Briar is a reference used in southwest Ohio and southeast Indiana to refer to a white person of Kentucky (usually Eastern Kentucky) and sometimes even East Tennessee, western Virginia or West Virginia heritage. The term has a certain amount of irony because much of the areas where the term is used are chock-full of Briars. It’s the N-word of white folks in parts of the Upper South. If you are a Briar, you may call another Briar a Briar, but if you are not a Briar and call another a Briar, them are fighin’ words! “Briar” is especially well known in Dayton Ohio.”

      “Darryl is a real Briar. He lives in Drexel and his ex-wives live in Riverside and Northridge. He has an old El Camino up on blocks outside his house and an ancient upholstered sofa on his front porch. He has three dogs and a chain-link fence around the perimeter of his property and they bark on a regular basis. He has a long extension cord on a portable TV so he can sit on the porch, drink Milwaukee’s Best and watch NASCAR. His Momma Darlene lives in East Dayton with her third husband, Larry. Darryl, who is on disability from GM, is living with Kathy Lou, who is divorced from Harold. His ex-wives are Glenda and Brenda. They are twins and Kathy Lou is their cousin. Larry is related to Darryl on Darryl’s daddy’s side.”

      Hillbilly: (noun) “Often used as an insult and racial slur against White folks who live in the country. A hillbilly is a person who lives in a remote, rural area in the South, often in the Appalachian (Or sometimes Ozark) Mountains and therefore is isolated and somewhat out of touch with modern culture.”

      “The stereotype of a hillbilly is a person who: Is a White Southerner who owns a shotgun, goes barefoot, wears a worn out floppy hat, drinks moonshine and whiskey which he makes himself, plays the banjo or fiddle, drives old beat up pick up trucks, has bad teeth, is poorly educated, has long a beard, wears worn out clothes and hand me downs, and is happy and content with what they have.”

      Just because someone is a hillbilly doesn’t mean that they fit the hillbilly stereotype listed above.

      Contrary to some of the other entries, hillbillies don’t live in trailer parks; they can’t (otherwise they wouldn’t be isolated from modern culture and therefore would not be a hillbilly). They don’t eat road kill; many are actually farmers and hunt for their food, they don’t pick it off the side of the road. Also, hillbillies don’t go around sodomizing people, that is a fictional movie Deliverance that has contributed too many of the negative stereotypes. A Redneck lives in trailer park and goes on the Jerry Springer show; a Hillbilly lives in a shack or cabin out in the middle of nowhere and doesn’t even have a TV.

      Merriam-Webster On-line Dictionary Definitions:

      REDNECK: is a white person who lives in a small town or in the country especially in the southern U.S., who typically has a working-class job, and who is seen by others as being uneducated and having opinions and attitudes that are offensive.

      HILLBILLY: is a person who lives in the country far away from cities and who is often regarded as someone who lacks education, who is stupid, etc.

      Briar or Briarhopper: Not included in the Merriam-Webster dictionary.

      NOTE: Briarhopper is the complete term with “Briar” being the contraction. The term “Briar-Hopper” was used much more prevalently during my youth (i.e., 1950s through the 1970s) in southwest OH and was especially favored by my Dad and his brother to describe friends, acquaintances, and enemies if their roots were from KY or TN.

  29. Grateful to have read your response piece, as I read the book & I grew up far from Appalachia.

    In terms of ‘aspirations’ of Mr. J.D. Vance, I see he has started a venture capitalist fund, that seems to be focused on investing in companies starting up in Appalachia. Seems to be in line with your idea that he’s really cashing in on this book.

  30. More people relate to his experience than to the one you are presenting. I read it and cried for the sad similarities I found and as many others have. This may not be your life or your family’s experience but way to many see it as he described it all in the book. I had a badass mama as did many friends. I guess making it into a movie is just a sign how we love to look down on a none existent hillbilly class of people. I don’t agree, nor do friends and relatives and friends who read. This is what he wrote. Why should he write what you suggest. He writes what his experience was, which happen to mirror many of the town folk.

  31. You all are full of crap ! It’s his life and his story and you can not dispute his story as you did not live his life. Get over your phony gealous selves and leave things alone that you know nothing about !

  32. As someone who grew up in the same town as Vance, is around the same age, and has maternal family ties to Appalachia (a tiny Virginia town that’s barely on the map), I disagree with this article. His book is a memoir of his childhood experiences growing up in a family from Appalachia that moved north to work. In no way do I believe he was defining the entire Appalachian people. But rather, his family and those like his from our town. I think the statistic is around 40% Appalachian heritage here. Whether those of you can understand this or not but, my family did bring their culture with them. I didn’t have to be raised in that Virginia town to understand my Southern roots. Holidays were spent with my extended family (around 40 of us, all cousins) that all had migrated at one point or another for better work. Politics aside, because my Mom’s family was actually comprised of hardcore Democrats, I can relate in so many ways to his memoir. For example: the nickname for my Grandmother, how proud my family is, how hardworking they all are/were, all of the children & grandchildren have been pushed to get an education and better themselves. Really, the list can go on. I don’t think those of you who never left Appalachia or your Southern states can understand. I think perhaps, you’re taking offense because of the topic of people and how that relates to you as opposed to understanding his actual experience growing up in a northern state with Appalachian heritage. To delve further into my understanding of his memoir, my husband is from Jackson, KY. His family moved here when he was in junior high school. I can tell you without a doubt that there are many similarities between Vance’s family and my husband’s. Both families hold the same political ideologies. In short, they are good people but, they can be racist & bigoted. Every single politcal aspect of Vance’s book mirrors my husband’s family. So, I have two merged Appalachian families that both ended up in the same place and couldn’t be more different than each other in many aspects. Not all Appalachian people are the same and I don’t believe that was the intent of Vance’s to portray that they are.

  33. Stating the obvious for the millionth time. Hillbilly porn in the guise of a desperate bid for tenure at a rust belt regional. Watch Deliverance again and read O’Connor’s A Good Man is Hard to Find if you want it straight up and served neat.

  34. I found this post very thought-provoking and challenging. I know very little about Appalachian culture, so I learned from the author’s nuanced reflections. He raises some questions about the attitudes of younger memoirists toward their families and culture that spoke to me.

  35. Very much enjoyed your review of Hillbilly Elegy. It reminded me greatly of Willie Morris’s North Toward Home because of the almost self-righteous tone of the author. Your point about his writing a memoir at such a young age is well taken. Morris, when he wrote NTH disparaged everything Southern, but in his later years depended heavily on being a good ole Southern by after the glitzy success of his New York career waned. Vance made one glaring error in his book that makes me doubt the veracity of the rest of it. He claims to be proud of paying $300 a month for his grandmother’s health insurance at a time when she would have had Medicare, and he made no explanation about that, so I suspect it was a fabrication to make himself look good. He also totally missed the point of middle class America regarding his Ivy League colleges tuition. Yes, those schools can be cheap enough with all the financial aid available to children of poverty-stricken families, but middle-class families fall in that not so sweet spot of not being able to afford the high-dollar tuition, yet making too much money to qualify for the grants and stipends. This is the first time that the majority of the freshman class entering Harvard is non-white.
    I really doubt the x-rated vocabulary of especially the women for the time period of his grandparents.
    Anyway, I totally agree with your review, and I look forward to seeing if Mr. Vance really has any talent.
    Babs Evers

  36. Excellent job, Mr. Burr. I commend you. Vance is trumpsucking scum. He obviously knows nothing of good, hardworking, honest mountain people, and I for one think he should stop airing his dirty laundry and passing it off for political savvy. Vance is a charlatan, just like the rest of the arrogant, ignorant trump parade. Mr. Burr, your article hits the nail right on the head. Keep these fools in check!

  37. I have read one heck of a lot of books and articles about Appalachia since 1964. I completed a PhD. thesis about Miners for Democracy in 1974. I worked for newspapers for 35 years. Vance’s “Hillbilly Elegy” is one of the two or three worst books I have read. He is an arrogant individual who is consumed with himself. In his book, he constantly points out how brilliant he is, which I guess helped him escape from the rest of Appalachian society. A horrible piece of work.

  38. Thank you for this review. I’ve seen so many reviews gushing about this book that I was starting to wonder if I was the only person who just do not like it. As a woman born in West Virginia and raised in Ohio, I grew up thinking of West Virginia as my haven. It was a place to see my extended family, where I fit in without even trying. Was it sometimes a rough bunch? You bet. Especially when it came to family honor (he did get that part right). But it was a hard working, hard loving bunch of hillbillies. Some of the conversations he attributes to his grandmother simply ring false (and are flat out offensive). To me, this book is just the story of a kid who thinks he had a rough life and wants to tell everyone all about it. Get over yourself. I kept waiting for some in-depth analysis of hillbilly culture and today’s society. It wasn’t there.

    1. Agreed! I’m a West Virginian transplanted to Indiana, NC, NYC, GA… West Virginians may have a lot of problems, but being lazy and shiftless is not one of them. At least the ones I know.

  39. Although I am 47, I am the same generation as JD. My grandparents moved to Middletown/Franklin from Jackson before my father was born. I was excited to read the book because I thought I would be able to relate to him. Although from the same town, his people were nothing like my people. These may be his truths, but nothing like my family. The more I read, the more it felt like he was trying to distance himself from his heritage – not the problems of his individual family – those are two different things. Yes, he made something of himself and “got out” which is what he seemed to desperately want. So, when I heard he was coming back here to help “his people”, I was angry. He has made it clear (to me) that he doesn’t belong here anymore, but now that he wants to promote himself politically, he wants to come back. Of course, to the State capital of Columbus – NOT Middletown.

  40. The problems of the Rust Belt, Appalachia, Native American, Black neighborhoods, Latino Barrios etc. stem from a type of perceived normalcy of individual and community destruction suffered by victims of the isolation and ‘benign’ neglect by various levels of government. They are never consulted when policies/programs are foisted on them by planners/politicians who plan using inappropriate simplistic design approaches. The alcohol then opioid epidemic was first experienced by Native Americans and Black Americans followed by the Barrios then in Appalachia. Even though there is a sizeable inter state agency for Appalachia why is its core area the epicenter of opioid crisis? We need all victims of neglect to demand consultation when plans are designed not after decades of incompetent incomplete efforts! Vodoo Casino economics will not save lives or create dignified work opportunities for vulnerable regions/communities- if their needs are ignored they have the right to rebel as St Thomas Aquinas and Thomas Jefferson. Intelligent action Right and Left is part of it – who brought us the weekend, eight hour workday, end of child labor, etc. ?

  41. I am a 4th generation Australian of Scots-Irish, Gaelic-speaking heritage who is partway through reading Hillbilly Elegy. I summarized the first few chapters for my mother. “So is Vance blaming the social and economic problems of Appalachia on its Scots-Irish heritage?” she squeaked. “But what about Australia? We have the same ethnic heritage. Why would the Scots and Irish do so well HERE if their problems THERE were because of their ethnic culture?”

    We thought about that. I said I wasn’t far enough into the book to be certain yet but it did seem Vance blamed Appalachians for being lazy, spend-thrift and violent by inclination. We wondered, could a self-proclaimed representative of any other ethnic group in America make such charges against their own community and not be challenged?

    1. I agree! A dear friend, whom I respect, recommended the book. Having come from the mountains myself, I was curious how he would represent his life and his family. I was at first embarrassed, then angry. I thought the author was a self-involved, egotistical, disrespectful narcissist. “Oh, look how I managed to become a hugely successful person despite the horrible upbringing I had.”

      1. Vance goes to some lengths to justify writing from the Appalachian diaspora but as Mike Burr asks, why not write about poverty in the Rust Belt, where he grew up, rather than peg it on Appalachia? He also goes to lengths to assert his “hillbilly” poor creds when it’s plain his grandparents and the uncles he was closest to growing up all did rather well in terms of employment and income, so it isn’t really a firsthand account of poverty. It isn’t even, IMHO, an adequate exploration of the sociology of intergenerational legacies. Primarily, it’s a memoir of a dysfunctional family, written by a 30 y.o. who hasn’t yet learned perspective, kindness or humility and is angry at his mother.

        I found a blog piece titled My Mother Wasn’t Trash, by Joshua Wyllie, an academic from Appalachia who researches the sociology of poverty, which seemed to me much more insightful than Vance’s book: a much more cogent, and humane, analysis.

  42. I grew up in Middletown in the 50’s and 60’s and I knew about Hillbillies but we called them Briars. Most we knew came up from Kentucky. The old joke at the time was, ” why are there no Briars in Hell….. I-75 doesn’t go that far.”

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